January 15, 2021

Counting the Commandments

Those of you who have experience in various Christian traditions may have observed that there are different ways of numbering the “Ten Commandments.”

This is not a mere academic issue of interpretation. It can be shown that the different schemes can lead to some significant ways of understanding and living out the faith.

In my Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther followed the Roman Catholic ordering of the commandments, which originated with Augustine. This is the order we see in Luther’s Small Catechism:

  1. You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.
  3. You shall keep the Sabbath.
  4. You shall honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  10. You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor.

In my view, the obvious weakness of this ordering of the commandments is that it divides the “coveting” commandment into two when it is more likely that the entire section on coveting should be read together and considered a unified word.

Other Protestants, as well as Greek Orthodox and Hellenistic Jews followed Philo and Josephus in accepting a different ordering of the commandments:

  1. You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not make a graven image.
  3. You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.
  4. You shall keep the Sabbath.
  5. You shall honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not kill.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

Note that this ordering keeps the coveting commands together but separates the word about “graven images” from the command to “have no other gods.”

This reading, adopted by other Protestant groups during the Reformation, had a significant impact in those tumultuous days. For groups that saw “no graven images” as a separate commandment became iconoclasts, destroying religious works of art and developing theological teachings that moved away from sacramental perspectives.

It seems to me that these words should go together rather than be separated because “no other gods” in the days of Moses explicitly pointed to idols that would have been fashioned as images.

The third approach is to see the “Ten Commandments” as the “Ten Words” or sayings, rather than simply commands, and to begin ordering them from God’s very first word to Israel — the words that other groups considered the preamble. This was the Talmudic approach, and it looks like this:

  1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
  2. You shall have no other gods.
  3. You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.
  4. You shall keep the Sabbath.
  5. You shall honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not kill.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

I favor this approach for two primary reasons:

  • It keeps commandments together that belong together (no other gods/no graven images, the various coveting commands).
  • It puts the “commandments” in their proper context — the context of God’s grace and salvation.

The Ten Words, then, are not merely a revelation of God’s Law, but a compendium of the works that should spring from the lives of those who have a covenant relationship with God by grace (the first word) through faith (the second word).

In his book, A Treatise on Good Works, Martin Luther argued that the commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” is God’s word that calls us to faith, and that all the other commandments spring forth from this chief requirement.

By viewing the Ten Words in the Talmudic ordering, we strengthen Luther’s case and ground the faith that God commands in his own work of grace and redemption.


  1. “The Ten Words, then, are not merely a revelation of God’s Law, but a compendium of the works that should spring from the lives of those who have a covenant relationship with God by grace”

    They are also a prophecy about Christ and His keeping of the Law. He fulfills everyone of the 10 in the Gospels.

  2. Glad for Eagle! Enjoyed reading his note.


  3. Mike, just a quick look and I’m out the door:

    1. The prologue, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” does not appear to be a command, but was typical of salutations in treaties of that period.

    2. The command “You shall make no graven image” does seem to be a command, and distinct from “no gods before me”. Idols are physical representaions of gods, and not strictly gods themselves, hence the distinction. One does lead to the other, however, and as one professor said, “Metal images lead to mental images.”

    3. Keeping the covet commands together is not inappropriate, as long as all of the text is included. The problem comes when, if separated, they displace the command against idols, as in many placards, catechisms, Sunday School lessons, whatever.

    4. Not wishing to sound anti-papist, but I think the consolidation of the first and second commandments was partly to gloss over the fact of the proliferation of statues and icons. So they doubled up on the covet commandment to make an even ten.

    5. Where in the Bible does it say there must be 10 and only 10 commandments? What’s important is that they all be included. Eleven will do nicely, or twelve, if you count the prologue “I am the Lord your God…”

    • And, not that I’m against statues, icons or stained glass as art forms—I think the real commandment behind the commandment concerning images is that “you shall not bow down and worship them.” Big difference over merely having them. The ark of the covenant, and the temple, included images of created beings, after all. But when the people started worshipping them it got messy.

      • Each of these versions was written for a different group of people and different times. We have to read them and the Bible in this way. One of these days we will come up with 10 Commandments for the “Spiritual” generation.

        • How about this for the first commandment of the “Spiritual” Generation…

          Thou shalt have no gods except those of your own making.

          Can’t wait to see #2 thru #10 (or #11 or #12 or whatever feels good).

      • Ted, in my opinion, you just made my case. “No graven images” is not forbidding representation as such, but representation of other gods that the Israelites would be tempted to “bow down and worship.” That links it tightly with “no other gods.”

        • Beyond not worshipping other gods, I always felt that one of the reasons God forbade the making of images is that any image we could make would in some way distort who God is, while from eternity past he planned to provide us with the perfect image of himself in the incarnation of the Son (Colossians 1:15).

          • I’m thinking… Perhaps you can even argue that the prohibition of images in the context of idolatry is actually an inverse endorsement of the art of sculpture. The fact that it delineates not bowing down to them suggests not that statues are morally bad, but they have a use which is corrupt. Doesn’t everything?

          • Think of how many people (mostly children, but not all) think of God as some kind of old man with a flowy white beard, up in the ceiling somewhere. I wonder if all of that goes back to that famous work of Michaelangelo.

    • I wondered too if there had to be exactly ten, according to scripture. I found this in Deuteronomy 4:13 ” “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.” That’s ESV, but the NIV and KJV also say ten commandments.

    • “1. The prologue, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ does not appear to be a command, but was typical of salutations in treaties of that period.”

      Ted – The rest of that verse reads “…out of the house of slavery. “ I read an early 20th century Talmudic scholar who wrote that the first commandment was a commandment against slavery, though not against indentured servitude as defined in the Law. I don’t know if I agree with that as it seems a bit of a stretch, but I just thought I would toss it out there since different scholars see various implied commands in that fist phrase.

  4. I don’t know when the Roman Catholic list of 10 Commandments changed from your first list, but it separates out coveting your neighbor’s wife from the other covet commandment. So it says:

    1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me.
    2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
    3. Remember thou keep holy the Lord‘s Day.
    4. Honor thy father and thy mother.
    5. Thou shall not kill.
    6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    7. Thou shalt not steal.
    8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
    9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
    10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

    If we were being PC about it, though, we would change “wife” to “spouse” because otherwise I guess I could covet my neighbor’s husband and I would be good to go, as long as I didn’t follow through with my desires because then I would be violating commandment #6! 😉

  5. In the modern Roman Catholic tradition, the Ninth Commandment is “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”. This means that (a) the wife is treated separately from ‘thy neighbour’s goods’ and does not seem to treat her as chattel and (b) the Sixth and Ninth are grouped together as the “commandments regarding chastity”. More of an emphasis on marriage and its sacramental nature.

    I agree that the re-numbering to the Jewish version did very much make the emphasis on “graven images” (which then expanded to encompass the veneration of saints as well as making a distinction between the cross and the crucifix) resulted in a great change of emphasis and division within the Western church.

    The main difference between what happened in the Reformation and what happened in the Byzantine iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries is that the doctrine of the Real Presence was not involved. The emperors contended over the efficacy of icons as representations of the divine, but there was apparently no question over the Eucharist, whereas in the Reformation, various concepts of the Lord’s Supper vied for adoption. This perhaps explains why it “stuck” in the West and reverted in the East?

  6. Steve Newell says

    Regardless of how one numbers the Commandments, the basic issue is the we all fail to keep level one of the Commends perfectly. The Law does not lead us to Life but shows us our sin.

    • But if you take the first two words as words of grace and faith, then you also have a picture of what the life of faith looks like (though stated negatively).

      • …and also, the law not only points out our need for a Savior, but describes for us in detail what that Savior looks like, since Jesus never transgressed. Therefore, for those of use who believe, the law becomes a promise which is fulfilled in us through Christ. It tells us of the imputation of His righteousness which is freely given to believers. Unless, of course, you’re N.T. Wright.

        • “Unless, of course, you’re N.T. Wright.”

          What do you mean, Miguel?

          • The whole “new perspective on Paul” that N.T. Wright has pioneered is basically a refutation of the doctrine of imputed righteousness (or so I’ve heard). He doesn’t believe in it.

        • Miguel,

          Now you make my point?

          We, under the New Covenant, are not obligated to the law because Christ fulfilled the law–completely.


          • Richard McNeeley says

            I think Paul goes further than that in 2 Corinthians he refers to them as “the ministry that brought death.” We can then contrast that with Christ bringing life.

          • Obligated to the law or else what? The threat and the sting has been removed. That doesn’t make works of the law any less worth doing. Good works are worth being done because they benefit your neighbor, and the New Adam loves doing this. Christ didn’t live a perfect life so we could have the right to attempt to maximize our depravity. (We were doing just fine on that task long before Jesus came on the scene.)

  7. I wonder how those who utilize icons in their worship (i.e. Greek Orthodox) were able to reconcile it with the command, “You shall not make a graven image”. On the other hand, I suppose we are all guilty of that charge in one way or another. How many of us have pictures of Jesus or Bible themes hung on walls throughout our houses, not to mention crosses hanging from our necklaces?

    • Just briefly: The iconoclasm controversy that Martha mentions above dealt with that issue, Greg D. A group of Christians (including the current Byzantine emperor), probably influenced by the criticism of the phenomenally successful Muslims expanding across Europe, Africa, and Asia, declared that icons were wrong for the reasons you imply. At the ecumenical council that settled the controversy, icons were declared not just allowable but actually a helpful reminder of Christ’s material nature. Christians are faced with a balance that Muslims don’t face: for us, God is both spirit and matter, both eternal and in time, both bodiless and in the flesh. It was deemed that icons, with their material substance that points to a spiritual reality, were windows through which better to see God, the Trinity, and even, as Martha implies above, the sacramental nature of life. Of course no one worships icons or other forms of religious art.

    • Greg D, we have had to interpret the commandment for thousands of years. Strictly speaking, “no graven images” would mean that we couldn’t buy or sell, because of the images of dead presidents on our money—or that we couldn’t travel because of the requirement for photos on our passports and drivers licenses. I agree with Chaplain Mike that the real commandment is that we not worship the images.

      In Luke 20, when the scribes and priests asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus caught them on this by asking them to show him a coin. “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” he asked. He demonstrated that they were carrying around graven images of the emperor—so therefore pay what the emperor is due; it is after all his economy. And, pay to God what God is due: that which is made in the image and likeness of God, namely one’s self.

    • Greg D.-

      The way that those who use icons (and religious images, really) in worship (and the veneration thereof) was dealt with by St. John of Damascus in the 8th century. Look up John of Damascus’ “On Holy Images”.

  8. The discussion on the different orders of the Commandments helps our understanding of the importance of them. These days few would seem to appreciate Luther’s admonition: “I have carefully admonished you to exhort youir household to learn them word for word, that they should then obey God…”

    Decades ago, Elton Trueblood noted that the Ten Commandments had become “an integral part of our culture by appearing in verse form in one of McGuffey’s famous Readers.” Today, the majority of people cannot name half the commandments.

    And how many Christians teach them to their children today? The poem from the Reader makes it easy for a chlld to begin to learn them.

  9. As some folks said above, they (the Commandments) are very important in that they allow us to live together a bit better, as much as sinners are able, and that they show us our great need of a Savior.

    I have never met one person who was able to get past even the 1st Commandment without messing them up.

    If you’ve broken just one of them, then you have broken them all.

    • I contend that the greatest function of the 10 is to show people the face/character of God. that’s not to say they weren’t “commands” to Israel, and that they have no moral significance for us now. Just that, as in all things, God’s SHOWING UP is the most important thing he does in his relationship with us, because that’s how he provokes love, repentance, faith, gratitude, etc. For him to reveal his Law to Israel was a profound grace, a profound testimony to them that he was indeed “the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

      I’ve gotten some pushback on the idea that the 10 Commandments basically exist to cause people to be in awe of a perfectly holy God, not to keep us on the straight and narrow. It’s hard for morally-bound people to hear them that way, but I think it makes the most sense in the context of the rest of Scripture.

    • that depends on what you mean by follow them. Christianity takes these most basic of laws and makes them far more severe than they actually are. The laws against worshiping other gods or making idols literally mean not worshiping other actual gods and not making actual idols. It doesn’t mean not loving your money or your career or whatever other people might point out and call an idol. The laws about respecting your parents literally means to make sure they are well and comfortable in their age and to show them basic respect. Adultery literally only applies to one form of sexual act with a person already married. It doesn’t apply to couples where both are married (covered elsewhere), etc.

      And everyone is indeed capable of following them. “The [Lord] told me to give you these laws and teachings, t so you can obey them in the land he is giving you.” Deut 6:1. That does not sound like obeying the Law is too hard.

      • See, there was this guy Jesus who literally delivered a Sermon on a Mount explaining that your understanding is entirely wrong. They demand perfection, as God is perfect.

        • Are you sure it wasn’t on a literal plain?

          • Cermak, I can’t follow that last one, and that’s just for starters.

            And yes, it was on a literal plain but also on a literal mount (Luke or Matthew, depending. Jesus wasn’t too proud to recycle his sermons).

      • Obeying the law isn’t too hard when you have a wooden interpretation (which Jesus didn’t, and which many Jews probably didn’t either) Don’t commit adultery meant, according to Jesus, don’t even desire to do it. Is that too hard to follow? You bet it is. The Law was given that the trespass might increase….

  10. There’s another parallel which emphasizes the significance of the “Ten Words” Talmudic approach. (FWIW, I believe most Lutherans actually take this approach, even though the SC follows the Roman numbering). The idea behind having ten words is this: God spoke 10 words before. Go back to the creation account in Genesis 1-2, and you will find it written 10 times, “…and God said ____”. The idea is that in the beginning, God created the world with ten words or sayings, and in Israel, God ordered his creation into society with 10 words. I’m still trying to find a NT parallel.

    • Good point, Miguel. The number 10 is significant in terms of literary structure, and I think this is a good answer for those above who suggested it could have been any number. The Hebrew Bible is much more organized around literary forms like that than we realize.

      • If we had six fingers on each hand, perhaps there would have been twelve commandments.

        (We’d have a base twelve numbering system, anyway, which would have been a lot more convenient than base ten.)

  11. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I know the main point of this hasn’t been the difference between the 10 Commandments in Exodus and the 10 Commandments in Deuteronomy, but I’ve always been struck by the difference in rationale that the two texts show for some of the commandments. For example, in Exodus, the Sabbath commandment is put in context of Creation, while the Deuteronomy passage ironically puts it in the context of the Exodus.

  12. The word translated ‘commandments’ in Deuteronomy 4:13 is ‘dbrm’ in Hebrew which often means ‘words’. I think your suggestion is a good one.

  13. I am reading through the Gospel of John with N.T. Wright and I like that Jesus says in John 15:12, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” It SOUNDS simple enough, just one little commandment. But think of how totally and completely Jesus loved his disciples! And then I think of how annoyed I get at times just having to do some little things for loved ones. It’s easier to keep the “Ten Commandments” than it is this one great commandment from Jesus. Of course, we could not begin to keep the commandment if we didn’t have the Spirit of Jesus within us. But it’s so easy to get busy, worried, selfish and not listen to the Spirit. God, grant us the desire and the ability to hear and respond to the Spirit of Jesus within us, the Holy Spirit of your love.

  14. The commandment against adultery HAS to be # 6 (sextus in Latin), because that’s where we get the word “sex” from! On second thought, let’s just leave this one out altogether! (Moses to Israelites at Mt Sinai: “The good news is, I jewed him down to ten. The bad news is, adultery’s still in.”)

    In Jewish tradition, of course, there are 613 commandments, not all of which will be applicable to everybody. The tradition of “ten commandments comes from Exodus 34 (not 20) where the ten are:

    1. Worship no other God but YHWH
    2. Make no molten gods
    3. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread
    4. The firstborn is mine
    5. Rest on the seventh day
    6. Observe the Feast of Weeks
    7. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice with leaven
    8. Do not let the Passover sacrifice remain until morning
    9. The firstfuits of the land go to the House of the Lord
    10. Don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      Yeah, once you chop out the commandments that are only applicable in Israel and those only applicable when there’s a Temple, there’s only about three or four hundred. And if you chop out those that are only incumbent upon free Jewish males, you’re now down to… I think mostly just the 7 Noachide laws.

    • Hi Gerald,

      I was thinking just the same thing the other week. Where it mentions the phrase the 10 commandments in exodus 34 the list as you have detailed here is quite different from what we tradionally think of as the 10 commandments. By the way, I would add to that list “do not make a treaty”, though I am not sure which one I would have to drip to make it 10.

  15. @Miguel

    I don’t think the new covenant replaced the old: It completed it.

    Heb. 7;
    The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.

    Obligated to the law or else what? The threat and the sting has been removed. That doesn’t make works of the law any less worth doing. Good works are worth being done because they benefit your neighbor, and the New Adam loves doing this. Christ didn’t live a perfect life so we could have the right to attempt to maximize our depravity. (We were doing just fine on that task long before Jesus came on the scene.)

    The threat and sting have been removed because that standard of judgement has been “set aside”.

    Yes, if all people kept the 10 then we’d have such a wonderful, safe world. However, not even the 12 Tribes did much of a job of that. To quote Robert Capon;

    If the world could be saved by good advice, it would have been saved ten minutes after Moses came back from Mt. Sinai.

    I’m not suggesting that we “maximize our depravity”–which even us who have been “enlightened” by the Spirit yet tend to do. I am saying at least part of what Luther said in that the 10/law informs our desperate need for a Savior by condemning us, and that the New Covenant is now in effect–and it is much more superior to the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.

    BTW, do you actually keep the Sabbath?


    • @ Tom:

      Matthew 5: “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” See, we can throw verses at each other all day. But I think arguing too much over how the 10 Commandments fit into our theological system is missing the point. The right question is the one Michael gave, as well as “How well am I following them?” Because whatever their theological or soteriological status, the 10 Commandments are simply an expression of the two greatest commandments: love God and love neighbor. And if we don’t want to do that, then we don’t really want to follow Jesus.

      • I mean Michael’s question (“Are you teaching them to your children?”) in his reply below mine – I meant for my reply to show up beneath his.

  16. @Tom “BTW, do you actually keep the Sabbath?” Most probably know that the Lord’s Day became the ‘Sabbath” for Christians [until latecomers like the SDA took it literally].

    It is interesting that the cavalier attitude to the “Sabbath” in his day, was one of the major concerns of Wesley in the revival of his day.

    And Luther did not whittle the Ten down to Nine in his preaching. [We are certainly down to Eight or less in our day.]

    But the most important point regarding the Ten Commandments is, whichever list you use, “Are you teaching them to your children?”

  17. I enjoy your blog, but I just wanted to fix a small mistake here. The Orthodox Church does NOT use the Protestant or Catholic ordering you presented. They use the one you call here the Talmudic one.

    Here’s just one site to illustrate: http://www.antiochian.org/node/25579

    And for some of the commenters, iconoclasm was most forcefully addressed and condemned once and for all by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Here’s a good concise site about it: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/icon_faq.aspx

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